August 14, 2020
Dreams (1990)
Grade: 70/100

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Akira Terao, Mitsunori Isaki, Yoshitaka Zushi

What it's about. Eight surreal short stories constitute this strange but cinematically appealing film. Supposedly, all are based on actual dreams by director Akira Kurosawa, and feature his stand-in, either as a boy or youngish man.

  1. A boy is told by his mother not to go into the forest and watch a wedding procession of foxes. The boy defies his mother, and flees in fear after the foxes (costumed humanoids with fox faces) eventually see him.
  2. A boy is led by a mysterious beautiful girl into the family's peach orchard, which has been cut down by the family for no good reason. In the former orchard, the boy is confronted by his sister's dolls, come to life in decorative humanoid form.
  3. A team of four mountain climbers is caught in a blizzard. They are exhausted, and it seems they will die. A costumed goddess appears to encourage the leader of the men to fall asleep. Instead, he rises, the blizzard abates, and the team realizes they have reached their camp.
  4. A discharged military officer walks alone through a tunnel. Men who died under his command, first a solitary private, then an entire platoon, exit the tunnel, all with the pasty blue faces of death. The officer is forced to admit the failures of his commands.
  5. An artist and admirer of Vincent Van Gogh magically enters the Dutch master's final painting, "Wheat Field with Crows", and meets the mentally unsound artist in person. The art direction is based upon several Van Gogh paintings.
  6. Foreshadowing the Fukushima accident twenty years later, nuclear power plants explode near Mount Fuji, turning the populace into a panic. Colorful clouds of radiation fill the sky.
  7. In the apparent aftermath of the nuclear disaster, a man encounters a horned demon humanoid, one of many in the vicinity.
  8. A city man walking in the countryside alone sees an elderly man at work by a watermill. They converse, and the elderly man extolls the qualities of his simple no-frills existence, responsible for his long life.
How others will see it. Kurowasa was 80 years old when Dreams was released, five years after the culmination of his career comeback with Ran. It would have been fitting if Dreams was his final movie, but he made two others (Rhapsody in August and Not Yet), to lesser acclaim. He wrote additional screenplays, but a bad fall put him in a wheelchair for the last few years of his life.

Dreams was better received than Kurosawa's next two movies, though in turn it was less highly regarded than Ran, which had pleased the Kurosawa audience who always wanted him to make yet another samurai movie. He was so good at that.

The film did best at the Awards of the Japanese Academy, which nominated Dreams in eight categories. Today at, the movie has a relatively high 23K user votes, and a lofty user rating of 7.8 out of 10. It is true, though, that older viewers think less of it. Those under 30 grade it 8.0, while those over 45 bestow a 7.6.

The user reviews are generally favorable, and praise the old genius for the art direction, cinematography, costumes, and imagination. Naturally, there is a salting of humor, both positive ("So I'm not the only one with weird dreams") and negative ("Skip Dreams, it's a nightmare"). Of course, the movie is too slow, episodic, and eccentric for some.

How I felt about it. I have now seen most of Kurosawa's films made between 1950 and 1990. Some are great, and all are good. Kurosawa was highly conscientious and never saw a project strictly as an opportunity to make quick money, or advance his career.

But Kurosawa was something of a struggling artist after 1965, when he lost the services of Toshiro Mifune as a headliner. Later successes, even Ran, were possible only through financing of wealthy celebrity producers such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who believed that Kurosawa had one more great film left in him.

Sure enough, Spielberg was the executive producer for Dreams, but to his credit he let Kurosawa have his own way. Kurosawa even received sole screenwriter credit. After all, they were his dreams.

With eight vignettes, it is no surprise that some are better than others. The horror fan in me prefers Mount Fuji in Red, but then the follow-up Weeping Demon is just silly, another version of Jacob Marley to haunt the still living.

Village of the Watermills would have you believe that country poverty is best. In America, the Amish have a life expectancy nearly the same as city folk. And they don't get to see any Kurosawa movies.

The Vincent Van Gogh segment is wish fulfillment, like Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, where our dweeb everyman gets to go back in time and meet his heroes F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. But the art direction is undeniably interesting.

Most of the stories are exercises in guilt. The survivor officer is haunted by the troops who died under his command. The mountain climber is traumatized by the pending deaths of the men he is leading. The boy is ashamed his parents cut down the peach trees. The boy is guilty of the "crime" of watching cosplay foxes on parade. The man who knows all about radioactive isotopes admits he is partly responsible for the nuclear accident.

Fortunately, the final vignette shows a way to avoid all that guilt. Never leave the small village you were born in. Have no ambition. Accomplish nothing. Keep busy eking out a subsistence living, grow a long white beard like Gandalf, and you will live to be 103, just like Jiminy Cricket in I'm No Fool.